City to Recycle Plastic, Some Doubt Benefits

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While Berkeley's recycling program is now up to par with other cities in Alameda County with the implementation of a weekly plastic pickup, the city still wants residents to avoid plastic altogether.

The new system, which began last Friday, allows the city to expand on its curbside recycling program by collecting certain plastic containers. Berkeley is the last city in Alameda County to organize such an effort.

"Some think Berkeley is behind, but we see it as being way forward," said Kathy Hutton, executive director of the Ecology Center, which runs the program. "We wanted to show people that (plastic) is not a recyclable matter."

Hutton said that Berkeley has resisted recycling plastic in the past because the city is trying to drive home the idea that plastic cannot be recycled like other materials.

"Glass and aluminum can be used over and over," she said. "Plastic can be recycled once, but it eventually goes to the landfill. We are trying to stop the extraction of natural resources."

Hutton added that the plastic industry generates a lot of plastic waste, but does very little to recycle the growing amount. With the start of residential plastic pickup, the city expects to collect 130 tons a year. Currently, Berkeley recycles 8,000 tons a year of aluminum, glass and other recyclable material.

Plastic is the most expensive material to recycle, Hutton said. The market for plastic is also very high since, in stores, more and more products are made of plastic.

"There are different types of plastic and it is more voluminous - so pickup trucks need to make more trips," she said. "There are also sorting expenses."

The program calls for the city to collect only plastics identified by the numbers one and two, which includes soda and shampoo bottles and milk jugs. However, plastics such as yogurt containers, food trays and plastic bags will not be collected.

"Margarine tubs are not recycled with bottles because of the different melt temperatures," said Tom Farrell, manager of Solid Waste and Recycling in Berkeley. "Recyclable matter is determined by the compatibility of the plastic formulas. It is not that we don't like yogurt."

Even if the plastics have the same number, sometimes they cannot be recycled together because of their different qualities, he said.

Farrell added that although plastic is now included in curbside recycling, residents still have the option of taking their plastic to collection centers. The two drop-off sites are at Dwight Way and Martin Luther King Jr. Way and the corner of Gilman and Second streets.

The new allowance in Berkeley's recycling program stemmed from the Berkeley City Council's 5-4 decision in February to permit the center to include plastic in its weekly residential pickup.

"The environmentalists said that it is a pseudo-recycling program because the plastic doesn't really get recycled, but people still feel good that the city is picking it up," said Councilmember Kriss Worthington.

Worthington lent his support in February for an unsuccessful amendment to the measure that called on the plastic industry to build more capacity for recycling.

He called on the council to allot more space in the program for plastic because most of the material is not utilized, ending up in landfills or shipped off to other countries, he said.

"If it was a genuine recycling program, everybody would think it was great," he said. "But actually, only some of it gets recycled."


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